It can be argued that the economic relationship between the people of Torres Strait and those of Papua New Guinea was fairly reciprocal or even. Indeed, it has been suggested that Islanders were relatively dependent on Papuans because it was through trade with them that they obtained their canoes (Beckett 1987). However, since contact, this relationship has changed dramatically. Torres Strait, as a part of the Australian nation-state, has become relatively developed and an economic gulf has opened between it and the neighbouring villages of Papua New Guinea. The treaty between Australia and Papua New Guinea has allowed contact and trade to continue but the relationship that now exists suggests that the Papuan villages have become increasingly dependent on the strait.
Torres was the first European to visit the strait, in 1606, but, apart from the passage of some vessels and the work of several naval surveys, there was no permanent contact with the outside world until the second half of the nineteenth century when commercial fishers began exploiting beche-de-mer, trochus shell and pearl-shell. The early commercial fishery in the strait was an extension of the Pacific fishing industry and the first boats included a significant number of Pacific Islanders as crew. Indeed, Mullins (1995, 54) has estimated that, at a time when the strait's Islander population was only around 3500, there may have been as many as 400 or 500 Pacific Islanders involved in the fishery. Both Islanders and Papua New Guineans became incorporated into the fishing industry, sometimes through coercion (Mullins 1995, 74). However, Islanders were often involved only on a part-time basis and continued to rely on hunting, fishing and gardening for some of their livelihood (Beckett 1987). The Papuans, meanwhile, tended to remit their earnings back to their relatives at home, a trend which continues today (Singe 1989, 85). In any event, this period marked the introduction of cash into the Torres Strait and the beginning of changes in the relationship between its economy and that of Papua New Guinea.
Christianity was brought by the London Missionary Society (LMS), which first landed in the eastern islands in 1871. The LMS originally viewed the strait as a stepping stone to Papua New Guinea; however, it remained in the islands for some 45 years and made a considerable impact on all aspects of the society. For example, it introduced modern goods and some services to the strait and to the villages along the Papuan coast. It appears that the goods were always more plentiful on the islands, and even at this early stage they were beginning to be traded through traditional links from the strait north into Papua New Guinea (Lawrence 1991, 8). In addition, the Queensland administration increased its level of services to the islands, so that, by the end of the nineteenth century, there was a noticeable difference between the standard of facilities on the islands and that in the Papuan villages (Fisk et al 1974, 13). By the late 1930s, Queensland had established government-run stores on most of the islands and, although the choice of goods appears to have been quite limited, it was still much wider than that available in villages in Papua New Guinea. Indeed, in this period, Papuans working in the strait's fishing industry began to use their earnings to purchase goods in the island stores for use and consumption at home.
The beche-de-mer, trochus and pearl-shell fisheries continued to be the backbone of the region's economy, but the workforce became more ethnically mixed and included Europeans, Japanese, Malayans, Pacific Islanders and Torres Strait Islanders, as well as Aborigines and Papuans. However, rates of pay varied between these groups, producing something of a class system within the industry along ethnic lines and this further modified the relationship between Islanders and Papua New Guineans. The most highly paid fishers were the Europeans and Japanese. …